When we moved to the USA I was very confident that my 3 year old son will continue to speak Russian.
However – within months my confidence was disappearing.
My son started to resist.
I was surrounded by people who only spoke English.
Like water flowing down the path of least resistance – he wanted to speak the language of his friends and teachers……..
I thought if I just keep talking in my native language the same way I was doing it back home, he would speak fluently.
It didn’t work that way………
…….my son resisted even more, and only because my husband and I created a language system within our home and took an extended trip back to Ukraine did I manage to refocus his language skills to my mother tongue.
So if it’s hard – why do it? Why raise a bilingual child?
In this article I lay out the four reasons why every parent should make raising a bilingual child a priority. They are 1) emotional benefits 2) practical benefits 3) educational benefits and 4) cultural advantages.
1. Emotional benefits
For the families with heritage language (which is different from community language and is spoken by previous generations) these are usually first benefits that come in mind:
- Communication with an extended family — my son and daughter have a strong bond with their Ukrainian grandparents, great grandmother, cousins, aunt and other family. That wouldn’t be possible if they couldn’t speak Russian or Ukrainian (which are both widely used in Ukraine). Children who can communicate fluently across cultural and generational boundaries in their family units tend to stay closer to those families and rely on them more for support. There is also less chance that a child will feel marginalized at family gatherings.
- If parents’ fluency in the community language is very low then teaching a child minority heritage language will help both sides to stay close as a family. It is very sad when communication is shutting down over the time just because parents don’t speak community language and kids have very limited heritage language skills. There is more chance for parents to take active role in the lives of their growing kids if the children speak parents’ heritage language.
- It simply feels so good to express your best parenting feelings in your mother tongue. It brings special bond, intimacy and comfort when you cuddle with your little one singing those lullabies your mother sang to you!
- Not all parents became bilingual because they learned second language as their heritage. Some lived in a different country for a while, learned another language at school or college, or simply have a passion for different languages and cultures. When these people have kids, they may wish for their children to experience the same positive emotion and benefits from learning a second language.
2. Practical Benefits
Most people bring up the practical aspects of bilingualism as their first reason for wanting to raise bilingual children. In fact, a lot of monolingual parents want to raise bilingual kids mainly because of practical benefits.
- Travel is a good practical idea to start younger children on. It is especially true if at least one of the languages a child is learning happen to be a very commonly-spoken language like Mandarin, English, Spanish, Hindi, Russian, Arabic, French, or German. And it is not a secret that travelling can be very powerful tool to open a person’s mind to new ways of thinking, doing things, and creativity (which are very valuable skills in our daily lives)
- A second language can mean job opportunities. Globalization has brought a lot of changes and new work positions into the market. In my native country Ukraine, for example, bilingual professionals (especially in English, German or French) are in high demand. Understanding this benefit, a lot of parents enroll their kids into foreign language education as early as 2-3 years old. Although English is the primary language of business and commerce in the world, the demand for multilingual professionals is steadily increasing even in the USA, and it is only going to grow in the future.
- Learning two languages early in life makes it easier to acquire more later on. So if you want your child to converse in many languages in his adult life, start with teaching him second language now.
- Knowing two or more languages opens the doors to the information presented in all of them: professional info, literature in the original language, online resources, and cultural heritage. Bilinguals have the privilege of get their information from a wider variety of resources.
3. The Educational Advantage
Child development specialists have many theories and arguments about the specific ways in which bilingual education trains and shapes a child’s brain. The processes by which we learn are always being studied, and our understanding of them refined over time.
But we already know many specific advantages unique to bilingual individuals, and particularly children raised bilingual from an early age:
- Bilinguals score higher on average on tests involving creative thinking or problem-solving. The ability to translate abstract concepts from one language to another also develops the skill to look at tangible problems in more than one abstract way.
- Early reading skills tend to come more easily to bilingual children. Learning two languages makes them aware of language as a tool they can use rather than a passive part of their environment that they have no control over. This translates into an understanding of language usage — the idea that two words can mean the same thing, for example, or that a single word can be used as different parts of speech depending on context.
- Early bilingual training increases a child’s ability to focus on mental tasks. The bilingual experience familiarizes children with the process of puzzling out ideas as well as physical surroundings while they are still pre-verbal infants. Later in life that translates into an attentiveness to abstract ideas. Many early school programs focus heavily on abstract reasoning skills, giving bilingual children an early leg up.
- Bilingual children develop stronger overall skills in their primary language as well as their secondary. Because they have so many ways to communicate, bilingual children sometimes appear to be progressing more slowly in early language development, but bilinguals almost universally end up with a higher level of skill in their dominant language than their monolingual peers.
Most of these advantages only become measurable in children with steady and advanced development in two languages. Occasional training in a second language is unlikely to have a major cognitive impact. Real proficiency with more than one language, on the other hand, will give a child a lasting educational advantage going on in life.
4. The Cultural Advantage
Deep understanding of another culture comes with knowing the language of that culture. Bilingual children are better trained to immerse themselves in other cultures than monolinguals:
- Bilingual children are more likely to have an interest in the cultures that speak their second language, whether it is a “heritage” language or not. This can manifest early in life as an active interest in different educational avenues. Museums, fairs and street festivals, and even just visits to neighborhoods will have an inherent interest to bilingual children that monolingual children may not share.
- Children raised bilingual are more likely to show tolerance for other cultures at a young age. They play more easily with children who do not speak their language or who come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, and are more likely to show an interest in socializing beyond their established circle. In early childhood, this helps greatly with school, which focuses heavily on social skills in the lower grades. It can also help prevent disciplinary needs later in life — more tolerant children are, overall, better-behaved children.
- Children of an immigrant background are more likely to show an interest in their heritage culture if they are raised speaking the language. They also show stronger senses of self-identity in school and social settings, leading to more self-confidence and self-reliance. Children from minority backgrounds are particularly likely to benefit from the enhanced cultural pride that a bilingual education gives them.
In an increasingly globalized world, the ability to deal comfortably with multicultural experiences is a powerful advantage.
Important Notes On Bilingualism
Children’s brains are primed for the necessary language skill developments in a way that adults’ aren’t. Many of the advantages described here will show up most strongly if you start bilingualism in your child’s early age (the earlier – the better!). Adults can acquire the same skills and strengths through bilingual training, but it happens much more slowly (how much spare time do we have in our busy adult lives?) and with a greater need for tedious repetition.
Also, use and proficiency of the languages plays an important role here. Most of these advantages only become measurable in children with steady and advanced development in two languages. If cartoons like Dora are the only source of your child’s foreign language development, that major impact of bilingualism is very unlikely to happen.
Despite of all great benefits, bilingualism is not a guarantee of happiness, success or intelligence. And it would not be fair to say that bilinguals always outperform monolinguals in all areas of life. There a lot of monolingual people who are certainly smart, creative and successful.
But we always want to give our kids something extra to enrich their experience, to equip them better for their professional and personal life, to prepare them better for their journey — and bilingualism can be a great tool for developing your child’s full capabilities.